Juan Fernando Quintero: Despite not starting a match since March, why the Colombian could be River's key man

Though he hasn’t started a match since March, River Plate’s Juan Fernando Quintero might be the key piece in the River puzzle this Saturday against Flamengo in the Libertadores Final.

He’s not expected to start, but his ability to change a match from the bench, displayed in last year’s final against Boca Juniors, has Flamengo fans fearing his abilities and River fans waiting for that moment when he enters the pitch.

But Quintero’s path from Medellín to legend status at River has been anything but straight. 

A midfielder with an intriguing mix of style and substance, Quintero joined Envigado, a local club in Medellín with a reputation for developing young talent very early on. At age 12, he began attracting attention with a strong performance in the famed Pony Fútbol Tournament of Medellín, the first proving ground for young Colombian talents. 

He debuted for Envigado’s professional team in 2010, but suffered a gruesome leg injury soon after, the first in what would be a series of untimely injuries throughout his career. After returning from injury to successfully feature again for Envigado, he moved to fellow Medellín side Atlético Nacional in 2011. 

In six short months with the Colombian giants, Quintero was praised for his performances, earning a move on loan to Italian second division side Pescara in 2012. Quintero’s first taste of the international spotlight came at the 2013 u-20 World Cup in Turkey. He scored a cracking strike against the hosts in the group stage, and later earned plaudits for his overall performances.

On the back of that performance, Quintero moved to Porto, but despite a strong performance at the 2014 World Cup for Colombia in the shadow of another Envigado product, James Rodriguez, Quintero struggled for rhythm with the Portuguese giants. At one point, lacking playing time, Quintero found himself asking to play more regularly with Porto B just to see the pitch. 

The struggles at Porto led to another frustrating loan move, this time to Rennes in France in 2015. Again, Quintero found his talents underappreciated and struggled for game time. Those experiences, particularly a string of untimely injuries with both Porto and Rennes, sent Quintero back to his comfort zone: Medellín. 

Independiente Medellín brought Quintero in on loan at the start of 2017 and immediately the move paid dividends. Finding himself the focal point of an attack once again, Quintero shined. Playing on the right wing, with license to cut onto his dominant, and some would say magical, left foot, he bagged a pair of goals during that year’s Libertadores and another 13 domestically. 

While a move back home after an unsuccessful spell in Europe could have been the breaking point for many South Americans, it allowed Quintero to find his comfort zone. He began making reggatón music while also keeping up his football career. While comparisons to James Rodriguez have been inevitable given their shared backstory, many Colombians found Quintero to be the more relatable star. His style of play was reminiscent of the talented kid in every Colombian neighborhood, constantly yearning for a chance. While James was the golden boy, destined to succeed from the start, Quintero was the local kid full of talent and panache, but in need of a system that catered to his abilities. 

In Medellín, Quintero found that, and soon found his star on the rise again. He joined River Plate, still on loan from Porto at this point, in 2018 and had unquestionably the best year of his career. He scored a magnificent free-kick against Japan at the 2018 World Cup, becoming the first Colombian to score in multiple World Cups.

 

For River, he was an integral part to their Libertadores success despite starting just 5 matches. He came off the bench in both legs of the final against Boca Juniors after starting both legs of the semifinal against Grêmio. In the second leg in Madrid, Quintero wrote himself into River lore, going bar down from outside the box to put River in front 2-1, then providing the assist on the empty-netter scored by Pity Martínez to seal the title. 

After his marvelous 2018, 2019 looked to be the year for Quintero to elevate his profile even higher. His move to River was made permanent, and with a new contract in hand, he was handed the number 10 shirt following the departure of Martínez to Atlanta United. After a string of managers who, for better or worse, failed to recognize his brilliance, he'd found one in Marcelo Gallardo who catered a system to his abilities, giving him the freedom to impact matches. Quintero started the year brightly, scoring a free-kick against eventual league winners Racing that earned a nomination for the Puskas award.

But soon after, an untimely injury again struck Quintero, this time an ACL tear that necessitated a long rehab with plenty of time spent away from the pitch once again. But Quintero dedicated himself to his recovery, adopting a Vegan diet to assist with the process. 

The injury and subsequent recovery means that Quintero has yet to feature in the Libertadores since starting a pair of group stage matches in March, he was an unused substitute during the semifinal second leg at La Bombonera. Domestically, he’s featured six times off the bench since his return, four in the league and another two in the cup. 

On Saturday in Lima, much like a year ago in Madrid, Quintero’s impact will probably be limited to what he can do as a second half substitute. But with Flamengo’s defense prone to pushing high in an attempt to win back the ball, there could be spaces for River to run into. Spaces that can be exploited by a talented passer like Quintero. 

Quintero’s 2018 performances have ensured that he will be a River Plate legend regardless of what happens on Saturday. But the potential to play a leading role in yet another triumph for the club that could go down as the most dominant of their era is definitely there. 

As always, the fun with Quintero is the journey. He may not be the most talented player in the world, but he just might be the most exciting. When he’s on the pitch, people watch, and that will surely be the case Saturday.

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